Closing Schools Works — If It’s Done Right

Moving to a new school can have disruptive effects on students.

More and more cities are deciding to close and replace persistently ineffective schools instead of giving them an unending supply of resources. Closing a school isn’t a popular decision. But does it benefit students? Today’s policymakers have the advantage of a convincing body of evidence to guide them. The culminating lesson of this research is that closing persistently ineffective schools can be a promising strategy for improving school quality, but only if it is part of a larger strategy to replace seats in those schools with seats in more effective alternatives.

Not all school closures are the same. Sometimes fiscal realities leave policymakers with little choice. That’s the situation currently facing policymakers in Oakland who are proposing to close several underenrolled schools.

But in other cases, policymakers choose to close persistently ineffective schools as a strategy to improve the quality of local schooling — a move that can prove contentious. It may seem obvious that students enrolled in a low-performing school would benefit from moving to another school, but communities protest closing even the worst public schools, and some critics contend that displacing students is more likely to harm than help them.

Indeed, the evidence on the effect of school closures on displaced students is mixed: The new school may be better, but the transition itself is often disruptive. If displaced students are to benefit from their school’s closure, they must not only move to a better school, but a school that outperforms their previous school enough to overcome the negative effect of moving. In a nationwide evaluation of school closures, researchers at Stanford’s CREDO research institute  found that displaced students who moved to an inferior school lost substantial ground the following year; those who attended an equivalent school experienced marginal losses; and those who attended a superior school made some gains.

On the other hand, closing a school affects more than its current students. The most lasting consequences of closing an ineffective school involve future students who would have enrolled in the school had it remained open. Future students benefit if they instead attend a better school, but they don’t suffer the cost of transitioning schools.

Of course, the ultimate impact of closing an ineffective school depends on the quality of school that students attend instead. Few cities have seats available in their most effective schools. Thus, policymakers seeking to close ineffective schools need to also have a strategy for replacing them with better alternatives.

New York City — when Michael Bloomberg was mayor and Joel Klein was schools chancellor — closed schools as one part of a strategy to improve the city’s school system. Gotham’s kids benefited from the closures, largely because the city simultaneously invested in experimenting with and growing stronger educational options. They filled the space opened by the closures with several small high schools, which studies have found led to large improvements in student performance at a smaller taxpayer cost. In addition, the city invested in expanding its highly effective charter-school sector.

In contrast, New York’s next mayor, Bill de Blasio, has adopted a different strategy, investing in schools to improve them rather than closing them. Upon entering office, Mayor de Blasio and his school’s chancellor classified 94 struggling schools as “renewal schools” and gave them a host of resources and attention at a total taxpayer cost of $773 million. The result? Some renewal schools did improve but many did not. Three studies found that despite the influx of resources and attention, on average renewal schools either did no better or made only marginal improvements.

Hindsight is 20/20. What de Blasio may not have realized at the time is that the turnaround model is a bit of a misnomer. The most successful “school turnarounds” involve making such fundamental changes — for example, replacing the leadership and large majority of the teaching staff — that they’re less of a “turnaround” and more of a fresh start. Recent studies also have found positive effects in cases where the operations of persistently low-performing traditional public schools are handed over to effective charter-school operators or when the practices often found in effective charter schools are injected into struggling traditional public schools.

No one wants to close a school. But no kid deserves to be stuck in a terrible school either. Nonetheless, critics of such policies are right that closing schools alone won’t improve education. Closures need to be coupled with a strategy to replace the seats lost with seats in higher-quality educational environments. When thoughtfully administered, that approach leads to substantially improved educational opportunities for a community’s students.

Marcus A. Winters is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and an associate professor at Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education & Human Development.